The Quiet Hero of Leech Lake

  • Blog Post by: Laura Waterman Wittstock
  • July 22, 2010 - 12:10 AM

People familiar with American Indian nations know how identity is closely tied to the land. Many also understand that tribal sovereignty includes water and valuable minerals or petroleum below the surface. Few know that the air above reservations is not only owned by tribal nations, it too is valuable. Leech Lake is providing a lesson in airway ownership and use that is probably incomprehensible to a postmodern world that takes universal mobile phone coverage for granted. 

Frank Reese sits in a tiny office that's crammed with books, studies, and reports. He quietly answers the phone when anyone calls. No one screens the calls of Leech Lake's Management of Information Systems Director. He has an engineer's demeanor and ability to answer questions with more information than can be comprehended in one bite. He works in a pleasant but nondescript building but in terms of geography, his responsibility is enormous.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is  situated in north central Minnesota, about 230 miles from the Twin Cities. The reservation touches four counties and its land area is 972.5 miles. If water were considered, it would be the largest reservation in the state. Over 25% of the Leech Lake reservation is water.

All that is a considerable challenge for an engineer who has a vision for computer connectivity, data handling, tower technology, wireless technology and, oh yes, an operating radio station. Distance is horizontal, not vertical on a land surface that has been flattened by glaciers present in what is now Minnesota from as long ago as two million years and as recently as ten to twelve thousand years ago. The only way to get up in the air for lower cost access to more bandwidth is with towers, and they have to be high ones. But none of these challenges phase Frank Reese.

In addition to the tribal leadership of a chairman, secretary/treasurer and three district representatives, Leech Lake has thirteen communities represented in twelve local councils. The tribe has close to 9,000 tribal members on its roll and about half live on or near the reservation.

The MIS department that Reese heads supports tribal administration and several points on the reservation with telephone and data service. A new water tower with an estimated 150,000 gallon capacity will soon be emblazoned with the nation's colors. And on the tower will go antennas for greater wireless capacity. The tribe will also lease out parts of the tower space to companies that need height. And in the corporate boardrooms of the U.S. the fight for high places is intense.

Reese will build his own tower for the radio station, KOJB-FM, scheduled to go on the air late this year or in the Spring. The station will have 45,000 watts of power and it will reach everyone on the reservation that wants to tune in. Station Manager Brad Walhof is already on board and making plans for digital recordings of pow wows, conversations with tribal elders, and other scenes that capture the ongoing life of the Leech Lake Ojibwe people.

All this is happening because of the quiet dedication of Frank Reese, grandfather, engineer, designer of telephone and data networks and services, and visionary of what can happen up there in the air over the reservation. 









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